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The digital devolution

40 years after Watergate, investigative reporting on the ropes

Investigative reporting in America did not begin with Watergate. But it became entrenched in American journalism – and has been steadily spreading around the world – largely because of Watergate.

Now, 40 years after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote their first stories about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C.’s Watergate building, the future of investigative reporting is at risk in the chaotic digital reconstruction of journalism in the United States. Resource-intensive investigative reporting has become a burden for shrunken newspapers struggling to reinvent themselves and survive. Nonprofit start-ups seeking to fill the gap are financially fragile themselves.

American investigative journalism has historically ebbed and flowed. It evolved from revolutionary-era pamphleteers to early 20th-century muckrakers, whose newspaper, magazine and book exposés of exploitive business monopolies and government corruption helped spur Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting, the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and the popular election of the Senate.

Investigative journalism went into hibernation during the two world wars and the suppression of dissent in the McCarthy era. But beginning in the 1960s, it gradually revived amid the upheaval of the civil rights, counterculture and anti-Vietnam War movements.

The Pulitzer Prize board created an annual award for investigative reporting in 1964. The three TV networks of the era expanded their evening news shows from 15 to 30 minutes starting in 1963 and began airing prime-time investigative documentaries.

The 1964 Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan made it much more difficult for public officials being scrutinized by the media to sue successfully for libel, and the Freedom of Information Act, passed by Congress in 1966, made it much easier for reporters to find vital information.

Yet, for several months after the Watergate burglary in 1972, Woodward, Bernstein and their Post colleagues were alone on the story. We were ignored and doubted by the rest of the news media and most of the country, and under heavy fire from the Nixon administration and its supporters. It was a tense time for those of us working with Bob and Carl, with our credibility and our newspaper’s future on the line. We worried over every word before putting it in the paper.

Finally, toward the end of the year, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and CBS News began to provide almost welcome competition. Eleven days before Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972, Walter Cronkite devoted an unprecedented 15 minutes of his “CBS Evening News” broadcast to Watergate, prominently featuring the Post’s stories. He described “the Watergate affair” as a “high-level campaign of political sabotage and espionage apparently unparalleled in American history.”

By the time Nixon resigned in 1974, a federal judge, FBI investigators, special prosecutors and Congress had all played significant parts in holding him and his White House accountable for Watergate crimes. But, even after decades of second-guessing by others of the details, mysteries and meanings of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein’s role remains crucial.

For journalism, their Watergate stories and “All the President’s Men” (the book and the movie) have had an enduring effect. Inspired by Watergate, generations of young journalists have entered the profession to become investigative reporters.

Newspapers and TV networks and stations formed investigative teams and showcased their work. National magazines published long investigative pieces. Led by “60 Minutes,” TV news magazines featuring investigative reporting proliferated for years.

Harking back to the original muckrakers, more journalists, including Woodward, expanded their reporting to book investigations of issues from environmental dangers to Wall Street wrongdoing to the conduct of American wars from Vietnam to Iraq. Citizen journalists eventually joined in on the Web and social media with blogs, crowdsourcing contributions and tweets that have sometimes become the leading edge of the next investigative story.

Investigative reporting has taken on every aspect of American society – from government, politics, business and finance to education, social welfare, culture and sports – and has won the lion’s share of each year’s journalism prizes.

No matter how unpopular the news media may sometimes be, there has been, ever since Watergate, an expectation that they would hold accountable those with power and influence over the rest of us.

As Jon Marshall wrote last year in “Watergate’s Legacy and the Press,” Watergate “shaped the way investigative reporting is perceived and practiced and how political leaders and the public respond to journalists.”

Perhaps the surest sign of the endurance and importance of Watergate-legacy investigative reporting is the questioning whether the news media should have more aggressively and quickly exposed the underlying causes of recent national crises.

Could the rationale and military plans for the invasion of Iraq have been more vigorously scrutinized in the run-up to the war? Was enough done to examine risky Wall Street manipulations before the 2008 financial meltdown?

We continue to live in perilous times, making investigative journalism as essential to our democracy as the Watergate stories were. However, the effect of digital media and dramatic shifts in audience and advertising revenue have undermined the financial model that subsidized much investigative reporting during the economic golden age of newspapers, the last third of the 20th century. Such reporting remains a high priority at many financially challenged papers, which continue to produce accountability journalism that matters to their communities – but they have far fewer staff members and resources to devote to it. Meanwhile, much of the remaining investigative reporting on TV stations and networks, which also are struggling to maintain audience and revenue, consists of consumer-protection and crime stories that drive ratings.

Into this breach have come a variety of non-profit, Web-based, local, regional and national investigative reporting organizations started by journalists who left commercial news outlets: ProPublica in New York, the Texas Tribune in Austin, California Watch with offices throughout the state, and the Voice of San Diego, among many others. They have been funded by charitable foundations, philanthropists, other donors and some university journalism schools.

Foundations that provide seed money seldom are interested in helping with long-term sustainability. Fundraising and membership drives must compete with other causes. Some start-ups have already failed. Others have had to cut costs and staff to stay alive.

This Watergate anniversary will surely elicit where-are-they-now stories, more reminiscences by those key players who are still with us and yet more second-guessing about what happened and why 40 years ago. Journalism and the American people would be best served if it were also an occasion for widespread recognition of the importance of accountability journalism in our democracy – and the need to ensure that it survives and flourishes in the digital cacophony.

Leonard Downie Jr. is the Weil family professor of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and vice president at large of the Washington Post, where he worked for 44 years. He was The Post’s executive editor from 1991 to 2008.